Posts Tagged ‘family history’

I write books. I write a lot of books, and I write them at the same time. I do this because I’m a storyteller, and because I use writing as a way of escaping to another place, time, and life. And all that’s great–but it really doesn’t result in good books.

This is because while I am a storyteller, I tend to get lost in minutia. My readers might enjoy my storytelling, but they tend to have a hard time following the big story–the overarching narrative that ties all the little stories together, and makes them more together than they are apart.

A few days ago I posted a request for people to weigh in on which of my current writing projects they’d like me to focus on next. The answers were pretty much divided, but then fate took a hand. A book I’m typesetting about helping loved ones who are facing death included a passage on the importance of “both/and” thinking, rather than “either/or” thinking.

The writer explained that it was particularly important in circumstances where “ambiguous death” was involved–missing persons, Alzheimer’s patients, and as in my case, where my father’s terminal illness brought up a whole scorpions’ nest of emotions, memories, and history. His death was incredibly complex, and I found myself wishing for the false simplicity of an either/or answer to the questions he left behind.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been weighing those days, and I’ve come to see that the question of whether we would be either/or people or both/and people really was the defining question we faced. How we answered that question is what determined how those terrible days played out.

Recognizing this has given me something I never have had before–a clear theme for a book, one that governs every aspect of how I will put this book together. I have the stories–lots of them–but I’ll be retelling them, editing, shaping, and pruning to explore that central, vital question the manner of Dad’s death posed for us–would we be either/or people, or both/and people?

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Because my Grandpa’s stories are oral history, it felt natural to write them as dialog, with long, descriptive settings. What has resulted is a play that’s meant to be read, rather than staged. I’m not sure this is the best format, but doing it this way was a wonderful way of capturing those conversations–and no matter what format the book eventually takes, it’ll be a great source to mine for dialog. Here’s a little snippet–see what you think:

SETTING: A kitchen. Carol stands at the stove stirring something.  Bodie and Marie kneel on the sofa in the living room, their elbows propped on the window sill behind the sofa, noses pressed to the glass. Pam puts plates on the table. Sally and Matt play on the floor with a giant Texaco truck and a set of blocks.

CAROL (impatiently):  Come away from that window.  I told you kids they won’t be here for over a week.

MARIE: But the drive only takes four days. I remember.

CAROL: They don’t do it like we do. They like to stop and eat, and see things on the way.  They haven’t even left home yet, and when they do it’ll be another two weeks before they get here. They’re going through the Black Hills and the Badlands and Yellowstone. They might even stop at the Grand Canyon.

BODIE: But they might skip all those things. They might just come straight here.

CAROL: No they won’t! Now come away from the window.

(The two girls slide reluctantly off the sofa and scuff across the living room. Marie surreptitiously kicks over the block tower Sally is making.  An  engine hums and both girls shoot back to the window.

CAROL: I’m not going to tell you again, they won’t be here until two weeks from Friday, at the earliest.  Now get away from that window.

Scene: The same, two weeks later—living room, kids playing, Carol sewing this time. This time Pam and Marie are at the window. An engine hums and gravel crunches, and a Galaxy 500 slides past the window.

PAM and MARIE (shouting): Grandma and Grandpa are here! Grandma and Grandpa are here!

BODIE (running from the bedroom): They’re here! Grandma and Grandpa are here!

SALLY and MATT (running from the hall): They’re here? Grandma and Grandpa? They’re here!

(All five children rush outside and stand, jigging impatiently, as the car door swing open and Bill and Gladys climb out. Gladys is dressed in a sleeveless, floral print cotton shift, bare legs, anklets, and flat shoes that tie. Bill wears a short-sleeved plaid cotton shirt and green duck pants. The children mob them, hugging them, burying their faces in Bill and Gladys’ stomachs and shoulders (depending on child height). Bill and Gladys reach out, hugging each child in turn, dispensing greetings and exclamations.

GLADYS:  Ooh, I’ve missed you so much. (hugging Pam) Pam, you’ve gotten so tall. Marie, look at you, that pretty blonde hair.(she reaches out and strokes Marie’s head)..and Bodie, you’re as tall as Marie…where’s Sally? Oh, here you are…just look at those curls…(she picks up Sally and squeezes her) Matt, you’re such a big boy…We bought you kids some presents on the trip…They’re in our suitcases. When we get in the house I’ll get them out for you.”

BILL: Hey, hey, if it isn’t Pam, and Bodie, and Marie…Sally…how’s my little potato bug? We stopped at Fort Bridger. I wish you could have seen it. I boughtcha a little something there. Matt, gotta handshake for Grandpa?

GLADYS: We went through the Black Hills and the scenery was just bee-yoo-ti-ful! I took a LOT of pictures.

(Milling and chattering, the children drag Bill and Gladys’ suitcases and boxes into the house and into the bedroom they will be using.)

VOICEOVER (BODIE): And eventually the suitcases opened and Grandma handed out her presents: “Here, Bodie, this is for you…” And she would hand me a furry hat with pompoms on the ties, a pair of pretty socks, a tiny doll in a long dress, apron, and sunbonnet.

Grandpa carried his presents in his pockets, or wrapped in tissue paper and tucked into bags printed with the names of magic places: Wall Drug; Cody, Wyoming; Yellowstone; Mount Rushmore. He dispensed his gifts in secret at odd moments, shuffling up to us with a bag in his hand: “Here, Bodie, I got a little something for ya.” And his trembling fingers fumbled the bag open, slid inside, and drew out a little pair of beaded moccasins, a penny stamped with a baseball player, a pen with a black bear inside it. When I tilted the pen one way the bear lumbered through the woods and into his cave at the other end of the pen case. When I tilted it the other way the bear walked backward to the forest where he started.

(Short cuts of Gladys opening suitcase and pulling tissue-wrapped packages from among the packed clothes, and of Bill pulling bags out of his pockets and giving them to children in doorways, in the hallway, at odd moments, of Gladys cooking, crafting, cleaning)

Once the furor of arrival died down the visits settled into a routine. Grandma stomped around complaining about her arthritis and making orange frosted coffee cake and painting ceramic dolls and refinishing furniture and talking to Momma. She had a wiry hairbrush, which my sisters told me she used to spank naughty girls. I watched my mouth around Grandma.

During the day Grandpa sat on the couch in his baggy green work pants, legs crossed at the knees, reading Zane Grey and Ellery Queen. Mornings and evenings he weeded in the garden, his thick leathery brown fingers easing the morning glory roots away from the carrots, radishes, and dahlias in our wilting, overgrown garden, sandy soil clinging to his knees.


SETTING: It is early evening. Bill kneels in the garden, digging weeds out carefully, tucking them into a gunny sack, then spooning dirt around the roots, trickling in water, adding a little fertilizer. Bodie kneels facing him. Beside her is a waving pile of leafy green weed tops.

BILL (looking at the pile of weed tops): Here, Bodie, let me get that. You have ta dig these things out from the bottom, see? If you leave anything—even a little piece like this (shows her a half-inch root segment)—it comes back just that much worse. Every single bit of root you leave laying around turns into a new plant. Bet you didn’t know that, huh?

BODIE: Huh uh…What’cha doin’ now?

BILL: I’m checkin’ around the roots here, just makin’ sure I’ve got all the weed roots out a the plant roots. If ya don’t, those weed roots’ll just strangle the plant right where it stands. Then, (digging carefully) when you’ve got the weed roots all out ya loosen up the dirt like this, see, an’ pour in a little fertilizer, an’ a little water, an’ then ya tamp the dirt down…just knuckle it in real easy, like this. Ya gotta be careful a the roots, see.

BODIE (watching): Can I help?

BILL: Why don’t’cha carry these weeds over an’ dump’em for Honey Dew and Joe? They eat’em, don’t they?

BODIE: Only if I hold’em in my hand. They’ll eat anything we hold in our hands. Watch this.

(She jumps up, jumps down the garden a row at a time, leans down, and pulls a big onion. Bill leans back on his heels and rests his hands on his thighs, trowel still held in one hand. Bodie hops down another few rows and pulls up a fistful of something else.

BILL: What’cha got there?

BODIE: Onions an’ horseradishes.

BILL: That horse ain’t gonna eat that.

BODIE: She will, too.

BILL: This I gotta see.

Bill stands and follows Bodie over to the fence, carrying the sack of weeds with him. Bodie leans down and slides between the strands of barbed wire, holding her onion and horseradishes to her chest.

BODIE: Here, Honey Dew. Here girl. (A white Welsh pony lifts her head, then trots up to Bodie.) Here you go, girl. (Bodie holds the onion out on the flat of her hand. Honey Dew takes a big bite, and then another, then chews and swallows, tears streaming from her eyes.)

BODIE: You like that, girl?  Here, try this. (She holds out a horseradish. Honey Dew bites into it, chews it up, and swallows it, tearing up even more fiercely. Bodie rub the pony’s nose, then her neck.) What a good girl! (Honey Dew drops her head onto Bodie’s shoulder and sighs.)

BILL (dumping the weeds over the fence): Well, I’ll be…. Here you go, girl. These gotta taste better’n onions and horseradishes.

BODIE: She won’t eat’em.

(Honey Dew walks over to the weeds, sniffs them, and then walks away. Bodie leans down and picks up a handful.)

BODIE: Here, Honey Dew, here girl.

(Honey Dew turns, ears up, and hurries back to Bodie.  Bodie holds the weeds out. Honey Dew lips them up and eats them with every evidence of enjoyment.)

BILL: (chuckling) Well I’ll be darned. (He watches Bodie pet the pony, then turns and looks over the yard at the children playing, then down across the river. Then he goes back to the row he has been weeding, sinks to his knees, groaning a bit, and goes back to weeding. After a while Bodie leaves, then comes back with a halter.

BILL (sitting up straight to watch her again): Whatcha doin?

BODIE: Getting’ Honey Dew. Marie wants to give her a bath and take her in the house again.

 (She clips the rope on Honey Dew’s halter and leads her out of the pasture, closing the gate behind her.

BILL: Why you wanna take’er in the house?

BODIE: I don’t. (She leads Honey Dew away)

Bill shakes his head, chuckles, and goes back to weeding.

PAM: (shouting) Marie, don’t bath’er. It’s too late. She catch cold.

MARIE: (shouting back) I can’t take’er in dirty. (She turns the hose on.)

PAM: Marie, don’t. She’ll get sick!

MARIE: No she won’t. It’s warm out.

PAM: But it’ll get cold before she’s dry.

MARIE: Grandpa wants to see.

(Bill weeds on, oblivious. Bodie comes back into the garden and drops to her knees by Bill.)

BILL: What’s all the shouting?

BODIE: Marie wants to wash Honey Dew and Pam won’t let’er.

BILL: Awful late to be washin’ a horse tonight, ain’t it?

BODIE: (reasonably) She can’t take’er inside dirty.

BILL: Why’d she want to do that, anyway?

BODIE: So you can see.

BILL:  She’d do that for me?

BODIE: Well sure. We all would.

BILL (looking at her, half-smiling): Huh. (He goes back to digging.)

BODIE: Why you goin’ so slow, Grandpa?

BILL: Cause I gotta be careful. I get in a hurry, I’ll hurt the roots.

BODIE: Daddy says we have to hurry up a lot.

BILL: Sometimes you go too fast you can get hurt.

BODIE: (sadly) Uh huh.  Do girls have roots?

BILL: (chuckling) I don’t know. I suppose they might.

BODIE: I love you, Grandpa.

BILL: Huh?

BODIE (shouting): I love you.

BILL (quietly): I love you, too.

BODIE: Can I give you a kiss?

BILL: (turning his head and tapping his cheek) Plant one right there.

Bodie leans forward and kisses his cheek gently, then jumps up and runs away. Bill looks after her, then shakes his head, smiles, and goes back to weeding as the sky darkens into night.

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Here’s another little snippet, just to get the weekend started right. It’s the prologue from a memoir I’ve got in the works. Enjoy!

The summer I was fourteen I discovered that in my family people talked—but not necessarily to each other. That was the year Grandma and Grandpa came to live with us, the year that the great aunts and uncles came to visit, the year that, for the first time, I had the opportunity to observe my extended family being itself—and to listen to them talk.

The uncles and Dad—when he was home—talked slouched in recliners in the living room, lying on rollover creepers under trucks in the shop, or in a pinch on the lawn, eating crisp pink watermelon, spitting the seeds between their teeth, and swatting mosquitoes and kids indiscriminately.

Grandpa talked to anybody who would sit with him while he weeded the garden he had planted within days of his arrival. We kids—my sisters Pam, Marie and Sally, my brother Matt, and the visiting cousins—didn’t talk; we yelled, shrieking threats and recriminations as we chased each other across the lawn, through the sprinklers, and occasionally—mincingly—across the gravel driveway and into the foxtails, tumbleweeds, and cheat grass choking the vacant lot next door.

Momma, Grandma, and the aunts talked in the kitchen, stirring pots, joggling babies, kneading dough, slicing vegetables, washing dishes. They took turns sitting around the table, elbows on knees, sipping ice tea, ice water, or cold juice, leaning in the screen door or standing in front of the fan, lifting skirt hems to capture the breeze on bare legs. Their voices cluttered together, strong and deep, high and sharp, horselaughs and shrill questions piercing through like shafts of sunlight, or sometimes shards of ice. There were occasional exchanges between the sexes, but for real conversation my family talked man to man, woman to woman.

When we kids strayed too close they warned each other—a tiny headshake, a cutting of the eyes in our direction, and a blatant change of topic in high, false voices for the ladies; loud guffaws and the occasional incomprehensible ribald remark for the men.

This censoring system had flaws.  I was big for my age. As long as I was up to my elbows in water and fruit, apron strings dangled over my ample hindquarters and my face was hidden it was easy to forget I was just a kid. I exploited the situatigon shamelessly. Sometimes I got more than I bargained for. For one thing, I learned that my grandparents were human.

As a small child I had subscribed to the notion that my grandparents were born married, or at least were betrothed in early childhood. The old black and white photos proved it: Grandma and Grandpa were toddlers in rag curls and straight blonde hair, respectively, both dressed in little frocks; then they were thin-necked and gawky in a white gown and a scratchy, bunchy suit, being confirmed, and then they were married. There were no false steps, no deviations caused by emotion, personality, circumstance, tragedy. They married because they were intended.

“But how did you know?” I asked Grandma one summer day when we were snapping beans on the front porch. “How did you know it would be Grandpa?” She just shrugged, smiled a sweet, secret smile, and snapped another bean.

Then she grinned and took pity on me. “I didn’t take any chances,” she said, nodding agreement with her own wisdom. “I made sure I behaved myself.”

This was a new thought—that there might have been chances to take, misbehavior to be enacted. “Didn’t Grandpa want you to?” I asked.

“No!” she declared. “Why, one time, when we were courting we were in the car and driving to a party, and he said, ‘If you’d take down your pants we could have some fun.”

Momma, who had just come out to trade our bowl full of beans for an empty bowl to be filled, sucked in her breath and said, “Mother!”

“So did you do it?” I asked, greatly daring.

Grandma laughed. “What do you think?”

Suddenly I realized that I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know at all.

Momma stitched her lips into a tight line and yanked the screen door open.

“Did I ever tell you about the time when your Momma was born?” Grandma asked hastily, grinning back at me.

“No, Grandma,” I lied, wriggling in my seat. She had told me, many times, but I loved the story. I ducked my head, snapped beans, and just let the stories swirl around me.

When Grandma got to the part about how Uncle Ted was a caboose child and she didn’t want to raise him alone and so one night she just up and climbed in Grandpa’s bed and that was Aunt Annie,  Momma turned beet red and snapped, “Go play, Bodie.” And that was the end of the stories for a while.

I pulled off my cobbler’s apron and went looking for cousins, doing my best to avoid the conversations hurtling across the lawn and under the trees. I ended up sitting in the cool damp rows between the tomato plants in the garden, talking to Grandpa while he weeded. I asked him about Grandma’s story.

He stopped weeding, sank back on his heels, wiped his wrist across his sweating forehead and laughed softly. “Well, I had to ask, didn’t I? I wouldn’t be doin’ my job if I didn’t. Your Grandma would’ve thought I didn’t want her, and that wouldn’t be right, would it?”

“Nope,” I said.

“I never pushed it,” he said softly. “You can’t push it. but I had to ask. Or what would she have thought?” He took Digger O’Dell, which is what he had named our gardening trowel, and eased it down under a weed. “She sure did keep a death grip on that door handle, though,” he said reflectively, tapping the dirt off the roots and dropping it into a bucket beside him.

I watched his careful hands gentling the strangling roots away from the plants, never breaking a root, and thought of Grandma and Grandpa driving through a spring evening in their Model A, Grandpa telling Grandma he found her beautiful by making racy remarks, Grandma reminding him that she was worth waiting for by keeping a firm grip on her door handle, protecting her virginity, or maybe poised to flee.

After a suitable period of time I sneaked back to the kitchen, where the women had finished the beans, took a place at the sink skinning peaches, and listened to the women. “Bodie’s such a good little helper,” said my aunts. “She’ll make a good little wife.”

“Bodie’s nosy,” said Momma grimly.

I spent a lot of time hiding in plain sight, keeping my ears open and my mouth shut. Standing at the sink skinning peaches and tomatoes, peeling pears, snapping beans, silking corn, I learned who was in the family way before she married, who died suspiciously, who had been disappointed in love, who was a failure as s cook and wife, who had taken indecent liberties with whom.

I inferred a great deal, since the women in my family talked as much with raised eyebrows, nods, swats on the arm, and little shrieks as they did with words. Much of what they said was fragementary and eliptical. The language of women was a complex thing in our family.

Sometimes they talked about becoming mothers. I heard about pregnancies, labors, and deliveries, some funny, some bizarre, all dramatic. There were no routine pregnancies in my family; each was a watershed experience. They told these stories over and over, in graphic detail, using the same words and phrases each time, the same gestures, the same pauses, and even the same responses from the audience—call and response, female antiphony. Every pang, every stitch, every wheelchair careening through the hospital from the emergency entrance to the delivery room was dwelt on in loving, excruciating detail.

These stories surprised me a little. Mom, blood and bone of these women, had been too shy to explain the facts of life to me when I had asked her about them years before. Instead, she had given me a book that her gynecologist had given her when she got pregnant with Pam, and told Pam to loan me The Fascinating Girl, and On Becoming A Woman, a book designed to acquaint girls my age with the intricacies of their bodies, the evils of Heavy Petting, the importance of Good Hygiene, and the role God should play in a teenage girl’s love life.

In the chapter on being irresistable I learned that I should be childlike but not childish, I should dress in soft, ruffly things if possible, and make Artless Remarks. I should not compete, but admire the prowess of the boys. I should try not to be too bright if I could help it. Since my clothing was long on Modesty and short on ruffles and my parents demaned A’s, none of this advice seemed to apply to me.

I forgot about ruffles and gynecology and went back to listening to the aunts in the kitchen

“…having that baby did something to her, and she never could carry another one…”,

“…the last cobblestone road in town was the one on the way to the hospital, and we had a flat tire but Grandpa just drove on it anyway,  over those cobblestones, and I was in so much pain I didn’t even notice…”,

“…the doctor told me, ‘you must have been sitting on her head,’ because we got to the hospital and Daddy dropped me off at the emergency entrance and they wheeled me inside he parked the car and by the time he got inside you were born…”,

“…I always thought that the way Daddy drove speeded up my labor because he took those curves so fast and it scared me so bad…”,

“…I lost three babies in a row once, and I never thought I’d be able to carry another one, but then I got pregnant with Joey, and then Rosie, and Beth, and it was all right…”.

They told these stories, then sighed, looked at the floor and shook their heads. Then somebody gasped, “Oh lordy, the jam’s burning,” or stalked to the door and yelled, “What’s going on out there? You kids cut it out right now. You want me to come out there?” or started pouring tea, and the pain of nostalgia melted in the hot, sweet afternoon, all except a slight bittersweet tang that lay just under the sweetness of the present.

Those stories both fascinated and amused me. Why did these women keep returning to the most painful moments in their lives, preserving the births of their children as they preserved the food? They all agreed giving birth was an excruciating, life-altering experience, something no one who had not given birth—including their husbands and me—could possibly understand.

They were right; when I thought about it at all, I thought of pregnancy as something that would happen to my belly, if it happened at all. When I was certain I wouldn’t be caught I would sometimes repeat the stories to myself, complete with gestures, and laugh, and wonder why they did it. Now, I think I know.

Those stories charted our journey. Even though it was the having-a-baby stories I found most intriguing, there were other stories told—stories that hinted at a deeper history, one that lay beneath the summer heat and the sticky stinging sweetness of peach juice on my arms. My aunts, those sneaky cartographers, charted much of the route, but they did so in murmurs and asides, casually, with no regard for the weight or significance of events. And because they were so very casual, I was fooled. For a long time, I regarded those stories as lightly as they had told them. I don’t do that any more.

Those summers in the kitchen taught me how to listen to—and tell—stories. Understanding the journey—the myth for which the stories marked the route—has turned the stories from kitchen romances, told to pass the time, into something deep, powerful, and maybe dangerous.

I am now middle-aged, and the time has come for me to join the choir of women in my past. But those women are largely gone, carried away by death and circumstance. I don’t can. My friendships are carried on in coffee shops, offices, occasionally living rooms. My friends and I speak of our children, of ourselves, of our dreams. But we don’t tell each other the deep stories, the stories that show us at our most human, our most vulnerable, and our most amazing. We don’t tell each other the stories that show our souls—the stories we can only ever tell when we need not face each other, when we stand side by side, eyes on our busy hands.

Not so very different from what I am doing right now, come to think of it, sitting at my kitchen table, eyes on my screen, fingers busy with the task of preserving something of myself for the future. I have come full circle.

And there you are, on the other side of the book where we can afford honesty because our eyes will not meet, carefully unraveling the pages I have created.  And now the book is gone, and we are in my big kitchen. A pot of something sweet is boiling on the stove, the air is warm, damp and faintly sticky. It smells of peaches and scorching sugar. Outside a child screams, “Stop it—I’m telling!”

I stand beside you at the sink. We both wear faded cobbler’s aprons. Our arms are buried halfway to the elbow in ice water. Peaches hot from the roaster plop down among the ice cubes in the sinks before us, and bob crazily while their skins split and curl back, showing the peaches’ tender, succulent hearts. We slip the skins off the peaches, leaning our forearms on the edge of the sink to rest our aching feet. And then, as the voices clatter around us, I lean closer until our shoulders almost touch, and, eyes on our hands, I tell you a story.

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